Without more

Denying a petition for a writ of prohibition, the Florida 3rd District Court of Appeal recently held that a trial court judge’s Facebook “friendship” with a lawyer representing someone involved in litigation did not require the judge’s disqualification from the case.  Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein v. United Services Automobile Association (Florida 3rd District Court of Appeal August 23, 2017).

The plaintiff, a law firm, sued a former corporate client for breach of contract and fraud, accused one of the defendant’s executives of witness tampering, and indicated that the executive was a potential witness and potential defendant.  An ex-circuit court judge was hired to represent the executive.  The plaintiff filed a motion to disqualify the trial judge because the ex-judge was listed as a “friend” on the trial judge’s personal Facebook page.  The test for determining the legal sufficiency of a motion for disqualification in Florida is whether “the facts alleged (which must be taken as true) would prompt a reasonably prudent person to fear that he could not get a fair and impartial trial.”

The 3rd District relied on a decision by the Florida 5th District Court of Appeal holding that requiring disqualification in cases involving Facebook friends “does not reflect the true nature of a Facebook friendship and casts a large net in an effort to catch a minnow.”  Chace v. Loisel, 170 So. 3d 802 (Florida 5th District Court of Appeal 2014).  Describing the word “friend” on Facebook as a “term of art,” the 5th District explained that a Facebook friend “could more aptly” be described as an “acquaintance and, sometimes, virtual stranger.”  The court noted that requiring disqualification in cases involving an acquaintance “is unworkable and unnecessary,” “[p]articularly in smaller counties, where everyone in the legal community knows each other, . . .”  (However, in the case before it, the 5th District held that a judge who sent a Facebook friend request to the wife in a dissolution of marriage case had engaged in an ex parte communication and was required to recuse herself.)

The 3rd District agreed that a “Facebook friendship does not necessarily signify the existence of a close relationship,” noting “some people have thousands of Facebook ‘friends,’” “Facebook members often cannot recall every person they have accepted as ‘friends’ or who have accepted them as ‘friends,’” and “many Facebook ‘friends’ are selected based upon Facebook’s datamining technology rather than personal interactions.”  The 3rd District explained:

To be sure, some of a member’s Facebook “friends” are undoubtedly friends in the classic sense of person for whom the member feels particular affection and loyalty.  The point is, however, many are not.  A random name drawn from a list of Facebook “friends” probably belongs to casual friend; an acquaintance; an old classmate; a person with whom the member shares a common hobby; a “friend of a friend;” or even a local celebrity like a coach.  An assumption that all Facebook “friends” rise to the level of a close relationship that warrants disqualification simply does not reflect the current nature of this type of electronic social networking.

The 3rd District “respectfully acknowledge[d]” its “conflict with the opinion of our sister court” in Domville v. State, 103 So. 3d 184 (Florida 4th District Court of Appeal 2012).  In Domville, the 4th  District Court of Appeal had held that recusal was required when a judge was a Facebook “friend” with the prosecutor based on a judicial ethics opinion that advised that judges were prohibited from being “friends” on Facebook with lawyers who appear before them.   Florida Advisory Opinion 2009-20.

“In fairness to the Fourth District’s decision in Domville and the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee’s 2009 opinion,” the 3rd District stated, “electronic social media is evolving at an exponential rate.  Acceptance as a Facebook ‘friend’ may well once have given the impression of close friendship and affiliation.  Currently, however, the degree of intimacy among Facebook ‘friends’ varies greatly.”  The 3rd District held that, “[b]ecause a ‘friend’ on a social networking website is not necessarily a friend in the traditional sense of the word, . . . the mere fact that a judge is a Facebook ‘friend’ with a lawyer for a potential party or witness, without more, does not provide a basis for a well-grounded fear that the judge cannot be impartial or that the judge is under the influence of the Facebook ‘friend.’”  The court did not discuss whether there was something “more” than the “mere” Facebook friendship that might require the judge’s disqualification in that case.

The decisions from the 3rd and 5th District Courts of Appeal in Florida are consistent with other state appellate caselaw holding that a social media connection does not require a judge’s disqualification, although only the Florida cases involve relationships with attorneys.  See State v. Forguson, 2014 WL 631246 (Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals 2014) (a trial judge is not disqualified despite his status as “Facebook friend” with the state’s confidential informant who was a witness at trial); State v. Madden, 2014 WL 931031 (Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals 2014) (a judge’s Facebook friendship with one of the witnesses did not require his disqualification from a criminal case); Youkers v. State, 400 S.W.3d 200 (5th District Texas Court of Appeals 2013) (a trial judge did not lack impartiality based on a Facebook friendship and communications with the father of the defendant’s girlfriend).  So far, no state supreme court has had to decide the issue.

In July, rejecting a challenge to a settlement, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit also rejected the defendants’ argument that the district court judge should have recused himself because of an appearance of bias created by activity on his alleged Twitter account.  U.S. v. Sierra Pacific Industries, 862 F.3d 1157 (U.S 9th Circuit 2017).  The civil action by the U.S. was brought in the Eastern District of California against private forestry operators and individuals to recover damages to 2 national forests caused by a fire.

The court made no findings about whether the judge actually controlled the Twitter account at issue, which was an undeveloped issue in the district court.  (According to the blog “Above the Law,” the Twitter account, “@nostalgist1,” was controlled by Judge William Shubb who was presiding in the case.  The account was public at the time of the relevant tweets, but “[a]fter the government sent Judge Shubb a letter informing him that his Twitter usage was being raised on appeal, Judge Shubb changed his account from ‘public’ to ‘protected,’ meaning that only approved followers can see his tweets.”)

The Twitter account allegedly controlled by the judge followed the Twitter account of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California.  The day that the district judge denied the defendants’ motion for relief from the settlement, the U.S. Attorney posted 8 tweets about the case on its Twitter account.  That evening, the judge’s alleged Twitter account tweeted a link to “an allegedly erroneous news article” about his decision.  (It was allegedly erroneous because the settlement did not provide that the defendants were “liable” and the title for the article was, “Sierra Pacific still liable for Moonlight Fire damages.”)

The 9th Circuit held that, under the plain error standard, the allegations did not warrant retroactive recusal even if the judge was the owner of the account.  The Court rejected the defendants’ argument that the judge’s “following” of the U.S. Attorney’s office Twitter account created an appearance of bias.  Noting “news organizations, celebrities, and even high-up government officials use Twitter as an official means of communication, with the message intended for wide audiences,” the Court held that, “[w]ithout more, the fact that an account holder ‘follows’ another Twitter user does not evidence a personal relationship and certainly not one that, without more, would require recusal.”

The Court also rejected the defendants’ arguments that disqualification was required because the U.S. Attorney’s tweets about the case were an improper ex parte communication and the judge’s tweet linking to the newspaper article was an inappropriate public comment.  The Court concluded that the U.S. Attorney’s tweets were not ex parte communications because they were not “specifically directed” to the judge, but were “released to the general public, intended for wide distribution to an anonymous public audience.”  Finally, the Court held that a single tweet consisting “only of the title and link to a publicly available news article about the case in a local newspaper, without any further commentary” was not a public comment on the merits of the matter and did not require recusal.

Although concluding that retroactive recusal was not warranted, the 9th Circuit noted that the “case is a cautionary tale about the possible pitfalls of judges engaging in social media activity relating to pending cases” and reiterated “the importance of maintaining the appearance of propriety both on and off the bench.”

As discussed in the spring issue of the Judicial Conduct Reporter, judicial ethics committees also advise that disqualification is not necessarily required when an attorney with whom a judge has an on-line connection appears in a case, but that that connection is one factor a judge should consider in deciding whether her impartiality might reasonably be questioned.  For example, the Arizona committee stated that there is no “per se disqualification requirement in cases where a litigant or lawyer is a ‘friend’ or has a similar status with a judge through social or electronic networks” but that there may be “facts and circumstances” related to the social media relationship that might disqualify the judge.  Arizona Advisory Opinion 2014-1.  See also Maryland Opinion Request 2012-7; Missouri Advisory Opinion 186 (2015); New Mexico Advisory Opinion Concerning Social Media (2016); New York Advisory Opinion 2013-39; Ohio Advisory Opinion 2010-7; Utah Informal Advisory Opinion 2012-1.

Even the Massachusetts committee, which has advised judges not to “friend” attorneys who may appear before them, stated that disqualification may not be required if “[d]espite a judge’s best efforts, . . . unexpectedly, a lawyer whom the judge knows to be a Facebook friend appears before the judge.”  Massachusetts Letter Opinion 2016-1.  But see California Judges’ Association Advisory Opinion 66 (2010) (if a judge approved a connection to a lawyer on a social media site because he believed it was highly unlikely the attorney would ever appear before him, the judge should disqualify himself if that lawyer does appear).  Cf., In the Matter Concerning Ferguson, Public admonishment (California Commission on Judicial Performance May 31, 2017) (public admonishment of judge who was Facebook friends with attorneys who were appearing regularly before him without disclosing the relationship, in addition to other misconduct).

Because disqualification is not automatically required, a judge must consider whether an on-line connection — alone or in combination with other factors — raises a reasonable question about the judge’s impartiality whenever a person with whom a judge has a social media connection appears in a case.  The relevant factors for making that determination include:

  • The frequency of the judge’s social media contacts and communications with the individual;
  • The substance of the judge’s social media contacts and communications with the individual;
  • The scope of the social media friendship;
  • The nature of the social networking page (for example, whether it is more personal or professional);
  • The number of “friends” the judge has on the page;
  • The judge’s practice in deciding whom to “friend” (in other words, whether the judge is very exclusive or more inclusive when deciding whom to add);
  • Whether the social media connection was established before the case came before the judge; and
  • Whether the judge and the friend have frequent, personal contacts in real life, not just on-line.

(Some of those factors identified by California Judges’ Association Advisory Opinion 66 (2010) as relevant to the determination whether a judge should friend an attorney and seem just as pertinent to the question of disqualification.)

Thus, if the judge’s social media page primarily has posts about personal activities, his connections are mainly family and personal friends, the judge is very selective when adding to his “friend” list, the judge and the attorney comment on each other’s posts, and the judge and the “friend” and their families socialize in real life, the judge’s impartiality is more likely to be reasonably questioned and disqualification is more likely to be required when that “friend” appears in a case.  In contrast, if the page is focused more on court business and professional activities, the judge has more “friends” on the page, those friends are primarily professional acquaintances, the judge allows anyone to follow the page, and the judge and the “friend” only interact in court or at bar meetings, the judge’s impartiality is not likely to be questioned, and disqualification is not likely to be required.

 

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